Occidental’s beloved Letterpress program finds a new home in the library

Letterpress studio in Weignart at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 17, 2023. Mali Abel/The Occidental

Letterpress printing is an art form dating back to the first printing press, created by German inventor Johannes Gutenberg. The process includes using metal and wooden type and ink to make words and designs on paper. In professor Jocelyn Pedersen’s classes, students work with images and letters to create journals, books and postcards, she said.

“It’s about coming together from different places and disciplines and finding a way to collaborate,” Pedersen said. “I’ve had my students work with students from the biology department, we’ve collaborated with a Russian avant-garde classic a few times, and we’ve collaborated with religious studies classes [among others].”

According to Pedersen, teaching the Letterpress Printing course and working in Special Collections has allowed her to connect with students, even while working virtually.

“Already in the past 13 years that I’ve been teaching, amazing things have happened in here,” Pedersen said. “Especially now coming out of the pandemic, it is really helping our students have a sense of belonging.”

During the pandemic, Pedersen said she had to get creative with how students could produce work without a print shop, sending print kits to students as far as China and South Africa.

“I have really wonderful images of them holding them up to the Zoom screen, you know, and talking to the class about what went into the book that they made and reading them to us,” said Pedersen. “It just reminded them that we are a community here and that even though they were spread out all over, we were here as an anchor for them.”

Letterpress samples created by students at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 17, 2023. Mali Abel/The Occidental

Irene Wickwire (senior) took Pedersen’s Introduction to Letterpress Printing class. As an Urban and Environmental Policy major, Wickwire said they see letterpress printing as an outlet for expressing their passion for nature.

“I really do think that plants and other living things in nature can be art in and of themselves,” Wickwire said. “Letterpress printing, for example, was doing things related to nature, bringing the natural world back into our lives, and I think it is a really nurturing space.”

Pedersen said the letterpress printers will be moving out of the studio space in the arts department of Weingart and into the old press room on the ground floor of the library.

“I just was referring to it as the ‘type dungeon,'” Pedersen said. “I’m like, I’ve got to come up with something better. We have named it thanks to my husband, who’s a journalist and really great at coming up with titles. It’s going to be called ‘The Lowercase: Oxy’s Underground Print Shop.'”

According to Pedersen, one big benefit of moving The Lowercase to the library is that it will become more accessible for student use. Pedersen said she plans to be available to the community through workshops and helping students who want to use the book arts resources for a class, or even a comps project.

Pedersen attributes the move to an endowment given by former Occidental student Lawrence Clark Powell (1928). Powell gained fame after writing a book on another notable alumnuspoet Robinson Jeffers (1904). According to Pedersen, Powell left an endowment for Occidental’s book arts program and was also involved in the building of the library’s newest wing. The endowment allowed for a promotion of the book arts program and provided Pedersen’s salary.

Wickwire took a class survey last semester and voted for the move to take place. According to Wickwire, letterpress printing is a scarce artform, as many printing presses are expensive and are no longer being manufactured. With the move to the library, more students will have the rare opportunity to participate in letterpress printing, Wickwire said.

Rees Walker (senior) is Pedersen’s shop tech and has been Pedersen’s TA twice, according to Pedersen. Walker said via email that to her, the move is bittersweet.

“The letterpress printers has been located in the basement of Weingart for so long, it’s established there,” Walker said over email. “It feels so intertwined with the Studio Arts [department] at Oxy. Moving makes it feel like the relationship is changing. However, professor Pedersen has spent so much time and energy making sure the new space feels just as special and inspiring.”

Letterpress samples created by students at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 17, 2023. Mali Abel/The Occidental

Walker said that she loves how important words are to not just letterpress printing, but to linguistic history.

“[Pedersen] says to the students, in one way or another, ‘The reason we call text ‘upper-case’ and ‘lower-case’ is based on the order they were kept in the cases.’ This is always a reminder of how we use certain terms, having no idea where they come from — but when we take a moment to learn, it changes our whole concept of it,” Walker said via email. “Each time I hear her share that, I see the class light up.”

According to Pedersen, she supports students’ voices in any way she can.

“One of our mottos is that words matter,” Pedersen said. “We want to hear what the students have to say, and we want to hear it so authentically, that we actually want to let them take the time to set it in type and print it into permanency. That gives somebody a sense of agency and belonging.”

The Lowercase: Oxy’s Underground Print Shop will be available to all Occidental students next fall semester.

Contact Lauren Gallagher at lgallagher@oxy.edu



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